Tabu is Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’ third feature film to be garnished with critical accolades and extolled as highly ‘cinematic’, art house at its best. Split into two parts, the first part, entitled ‘A Lost Paradise’, follows the story of an elderly lady named Aurora (Laura Soveral), her hardworking maid from Cape Verde (‘Santa’- Isabel Munoz Cardoso) and her concerned neighbour Pilar (Teresa Madruga).
As Aurora becomes more and more senile, the past creeps into her present in a most vivid way, with memories of her old colonial past taking shape in the form of previous pet crocodiles and a reawakened fear of witchcraft. Another lonely soul, Pilar is present to see Aurora’s health steeply decline and begins to tend to her more carefully than ever. It is Pilar that discovers long lost love letters detailing a romance between Aurora and a man named Gian Luca Ventura following Aurora’s death. Feeling there are unresolved issues around her death, she invites the old man to the funeral not only to let him grieve but to explain their story and how Aurora ended up estranged from her daughter, living her final days alone bar her maid Santa and neighbour Pilar.
From here the second part of the film simply called ‘Paradise’ proceeds. This section has no dialogue other than the voice over of the aged Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo), creating a dreamlike sequence of events. What unfolds is a quite formulaic love affair between the rebellious young Ventura (Carloto Cotta) and the passionate but trapped Aurora. The outcome of their long triangle (Aurora is married and carrying her husband’s child) is as disastrous and dramatic as every classic, doomed love story of eternal but unfulfilled love.
Gomes is fully aware of the techniques and traditions of cinema and this is very prevalent in Tabu. When he is not employing many of the techniques, such as soft focus and reverting to black and white colour for a classic cinematic look, he is thwarting them. Mainly this is seen in his use of time. His execution of interlinking themes and motifs is similarly impressive. The reappearing presence of crocodiles typifies this, as for Aurora they symbolize her past life, the dangers and lack of control she experienced in Africa. In the image of the crocodile the old colonial fears of a wild, uncontrolled humanity are reflected back. In her last days, it is this predator that returns to haunt her, as she remembers how her pet crocodile would persistently wander onto Ventura’s land, just as she would to him. She is, in her lonely final days, in the clutches of the crocodile’s jaws so to speak, having allowed herself to bow to her feelings but never fulfilling them by staying with Ventura.
While Gomes’ style of storytelling is imaginative in its use of time, voiceovers and dynamic use of sound (part two), there is something missing that cannot be replaced, even by the beautiful cinematography. There is something empty and cookie-cutter about the lovers, including Aurora’s exceedingly dull husband. Gomes can express the pain of troubled love in every way but through the characters themselves. In fact, the supporting characters are altogether more unconventional, and thankfully humorous, than the dour trio meant to engage us. In spite of the frequently drawn out scenes that will be excused as art house, it is a visually dazzlingly film with an innovative and knowledgeable edge. Watch the trailer on MEG.ie.